Monday, September 24, 2018
How safe are abortion rights in New York if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed?
Albany Times-Union (Sept. 18, 2018): How safe are abortion rights in NY if Kavanaugh is confirmed?, by Bethany Bump:
New York legalized abortion in 1970, becoming the second state in the United States to broadly legalize abortion care and the first state in the nation to legalize it for out-of-state residents.
At the time, the law was seen as liberal, but no longer, according to legal scholars and experts. As confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh proceed in the U.S. Senate and the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance, New York's abortion laws have received increased attention at the state and local level.
"There has been a dramatic increase by states in the last decade to try to test the boundaries of the nation's abortion law, and it seemed to be in anticipation of changes on the Supreme Court," said Andy Ayers, director of Albany Law School's Government Law Center.
Though a common assumption is that New York is generally safe from federal rollbacks on progressive issues, a policy brief authored by Ayers and published last week by Albany Law School and the Rockefeller Institute of Government highlights exactly why that might not be the case when it comes to abortion rights.
Under New York penal law, abortion is technically a crime. The 1970 law that legalized abortion simply made the procedure a "justifiable" crime under two specific circumstances: when it is performed within 24 weeks of conception or when it is performed to save a woman's life. The law contains no health exception or any other exception (such as when the fetus is nonviable) from the 24-week restriction. However, the Supreme Court later ruled in Roe and in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that denying a health exception or forcing women to carry nonviable fetuses to term constitute unconstitutional restrictions on access to abortion care.
In 1994, the New York Court of Appeals wrote that "the fundamental right of reproductive choice, inherent in the due process liberty right guaranteed by our state constitution, is at least as extensive as the federal constitutional right," and went on to cite both Roe and Casey.
"In lawyer terms, this was 'dicta,' meaning non-binding," said Ayers, who is an adviser to the Rockefeller Institute's Center for Law and Policy Solutions. "But to me, it's very, very hard to imagine that our Court of Appeals would find it permissible to restrict abortion in a way that Roe would not have allowed."
Although legal experts agree it's unconstitutional for New York to deny late-term abortions to women to protect their health or when the fetus is nonviable, those exceptions remain a gray area to some medical professionals.
The law governing abortion in New York exists within the state's penal code, meaning violators could face criminal punishment rather than civil liability. Some doctors in New York have urged some patients to seek a late-term abortion in another state.
The Reproductive Health Act, a bill that was introduced in the state Legislature in 2017 to bring New York's abortion law in line with Roe and Casey, would lessen this effect by moving abortion statutes out of state penal law and into the state's public health law. It would also expand the types of medical professionals allowed to perform abortions to include nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
As President Donald Trump prepared to announce Brett Kavanaugh as his Supreme Court nominee this summer, and amid pressure on the left from Democratic primary opponent Cynthia Nixon, Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke out against Republican state senators who have refused to pass the bill.
Other states have had better luck amending their abortion laws as the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court faces its most significant shift since the Second World War. Massachusetts recently amended its laws to bolster abortion protections, while at least fifteen states have passed laws in recent years that would prohibit abortion should the Supreme Court overturn Roe.
"If a significant number of other states start prohibiting abortion or making it hard to access," Ayers said, "we may see people come into New York to get abortions again, just like they did in the '70s."
This past Thursday, the New York City Council Committee on Women, chaired by Council Member Helen Rosenthal, held a hearing on the current status of reproductive rights and access to abortion services in New York City. The Committee heard Council Resolution 84, introduced by Public Advocate Letitia James, Council Member Rosenthal, and Council Member Justin Brannan, which urges the State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign, the Reproductive Health Act. Abortion rights advocates testified at the hearing, including Cynthia Soohoo, Co-Director of the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic at CUNY School of Law. More information about the hearing, including video of the hearing, can be found here.